One of the common threads of many school safety incidents is that the students involved did not have a positive relationship with an adult in the building. By engaging students, staff, and parents to build relationships, you can take steps to improve school safety and climate.
You can look at the discipline data, but to get a good feel about school climate and security, you should be in the hallways during arrival times, when classes change and have a presence in the cafeteria. You can find out so much about what’s going on in the building by observing students in the hallways and spending time in the cafeteria when students are socializing. That helps SROs, security staff and administrators get a better view of school climate and the relationships that students have with adults in the building.
To help maintain safe schools, we identified some possible steps which included but were not limited to the following to support building relationships and to improve school climate:
Take a big picture view. It is essential to know your students’ backgrounds and interests. For example, we have some students from environments where they experience significant social-emotional challenges. A student may not have the support structures at home, but if you do not know that information and the student comes to school and acts out, we often tend to respond to the behavior instead of looking a little deeper to find out what is causing it.
Understand the causes of behavior. Ask the building leaders to look more closely at students with high discipline incidences. We took our school security officers and administrators to knock on doors before the school year began to find out more about our students' home lives. It can be something as simple as not being able to get the required school supplies, the birth of a new sibling or having clothes to wear. Part of it is looking past behavior and finding out the reasons, root-causes.
Get staff on board. Staff engagement should be encouraged by the superintendent and building leaders. Ultimately, relationship-building should start with the interview process. For instance, when you are interviewing SROs to work in the school, just because they are police officers, that does not mean they can work effectively in the school environment. The successful police officers in schools are trained, involved in school events and are part of the school fabric. Encourage staff to ride the buses on occasion and see where students live. That helps staff understand where the students are coming from and some of their challenges.
Don’t overlook support staff. Custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers all play critical roles in improving school climate and building relationships with students. They are probably some of the most important people, but in too many cases, we tend to forget about them. Bus drivers are so necessary because the ride home is often a social time for students. If something is going to happen, the bus drivers have to listen and report it because kids are going to talk, and typically they are oblivious to the bus driver being there. Empower your support staff, and let them know their importance. Custodians are regularly in the hallways of the school. They build relationships with the entire student body. Teachers may only see a segment of students, but the custodians see all of the students. Also, cafeteria workers can build relationships with students because they also hear and observe students in social settings.
Engage your community. Develop strong relationships with social services, religious institutions, courts, and the police department (and any other appropriate agencies) to boost their awareness of how you are working to create a positive school climate. For instance, in one of our school districts, we had relationships with the public housing agency in our community because that is where many of our students lived. Build relationships with the local courts and the district attorney regarding preventative, proactive options versus punitive reactive measures. Engage them in regular collaborative meetings so that everybody is on the same page.
Assess success and progress. Send surveys to students, parents, and staff about school climate on a regular basis. Ask questions about how safe they feel in the building. Ask for their input, any areas of concern and suggestions to improve school climate. Address their concerns promptly.
About the Author:
Mr. Tim Mallory is an associate with Bedden and Associates and has over thirty years of combined experience in school security, law enforcement, and legal services. He currently serves as the Director of Public Safety for a community college. Mr. Mallory previously worked with Dr. Bedden for several years as his Chief of Safety & Security, and has also served as a Manager, and Coordinator of Security Services for several large school districts. He was formerly a police officer and served his country for seven years in the U.S. Air Force.
Mr. Mallory and other associates from Bedden and Associates can assist schools and districts with improving their safe school practices in a variety of areas to include but not limited to School-Law Enforcement Partnerships, Establishing Clear Roles and Responsibilities, Legal Issues in School-Law Enforcement, and Building Effective Relationships with Students. Please feel free to reach us at 804-601-4435 or email.